The Leave No Trace crew has spent thousands of dollars, hours, and miles putting out the message of low-impact camping. Here’s a basic primer, straight from their website, with our own additions for our own local environments.
Plan Ahead and Prepare
Know the regulations and special concerns for the area you’ll visit. This is especially true of the BWCA and places where you need permits, and places like the Lower Wisconsin where glass is banned for safety reasons.
Prepare for extreme weather, hazards, and emergencies. I don’t know how to do this other than to make gear checklists and use them, do periodic gear inventories and check seams and other failure points, and keep your first aid kit updated. Also, a Wilderness First Aid Class
would be a good idea.
Schedule your trip to avoid times of high use. This can be a temporal strategy (go in the fall or spring on the margins of the seasons) or a geographic one (take the first 400 rod portage you see and kiss 90% of the people goodbye). Also, driving another hour or two will get you farther out into the bush.
Visit in small groups. Split larger parties into groups of 4-6. The BWCA does this for you, as groups are now limited to 9 people or 3 canoes (which limits you in reality to six people or so).
Repackage food to minimize waste. This is a great idea, especially if you consider 25% of our solid waste is packaging. Buy bulk in the first place if you can, and repack so you can put your food into a critterproof barrel you’ll be a lot happier when Mr. Chipmunk comes to call (or in some cases, Mr. Bear).
Use a map and compass to eliminate the use of marking paint, rock cairns or flagging. And making fake cairns or inukshuks is in very poor taste. Don’t do it.
Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
Durable surfaces include established trails and campsites, rock, gravel, dry grasses or snow. Don’t pick a nice soft place to sleep because a) you’re likely to damage fragile vegetation, and b) you’ll end up in a bog if it rains. Note that snow camping is the lowest impact because within a few months your campsite melts and disappears. Winter camping rules!
Protect riparian areas by camping at least 200 feet from lakes and streams. This is not always easy, and in the case that you’re on an island that’s less than 400 feet in diameter, you’re basically mathematically screwed. If you are forced to camp in places that are closer to water, watch your waste carefully.
Good campsites are found, not made. Altering a site is not necessary. It’s also really stupid. Once in the Boundary Waters some kind soul left us a table made of twigs and clear tie-wraps. We cut them up, burned the wood and packed out the plastic bits. Not to be holier than thou, but for heaven’s sake, don’t be an idiot, okay?
In Popular Areas…
Concentrate use on existing trails and campsites. Makes sense, right? If you’ve already made impact, don’t make it worse.
Walk single file in the middle of the trail, even when wet or muddy. Makes sense too. A mud puddle, if walked around, makes a bigger mud puddle. And it goes on and on…
Keep campsites small. Focus activities in areas where vegetation is absent. Bigger is not better. Smaller fires, smaller areas, smaller tent sites, etc.
In Pristine Areas…
Disperse use to prevent the creation of campsites and trails, and avoid places where impacts are just beginning.
Dispose of Waste Properly
Pack it in, pack it out. Inspect your campsite and rest areas for trash or spilled foods. Pack out all trash, leftover food, and litter. This is irrespective of the origin of the waste. Make a deposit in the karmic bank account.
About poop… Deposit solid human waste in catholes dug 6 to 8 inches deep at least 200 feet from water, camp, and trails. Cover and disguise the cathole when finished. If you’re going to be in a place for a while, don’t use the same place over and over because you might uncover a previous little treasure.
Pack out toilet paper and hygiene products. Yeah, you could burn them. But to burn this stuff properly you need a hot fire, and that takes a lot of wood, and usually you end up with a partially burned mess. Get some opaque baggies and pack it out. Please.
To wash yourself or your dishes, carry water 200 feet away from streams or lakes. Use small amounts of a biodegradable soap like Dr. Bronners (you know, the “All-One-God” guy with the little tiny writing on the outside of the bottle that’s very entertaining) or something similar. Scatter strained dishwater.
Leave What You Find
Preserve the past: examine, but do not touch, cultural or historic structures and artifacts.
Leave rocks, plants and other natural objects as you find them.
Avoid introducing or transporting non-native species.
Do not build structures, furniture, or dig trenches.
Minimize Campfire Impacts
Campfires can cause lasting impacts to the backcountry. Use a lightweight stove for cooking and enjoy a candle lantern for light.
Where fires are permitted, use established fire rings, fire pans, or mound fires.
Keep fires small. Only use sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand.
Burn all wood and coals to ash, put out campfires completely, then scatter cool ashes.
Observe wildlife from a distance. Do not follow or approach them.
Never feed animals. Feeding wildlife damages their health, alters natural behaviors, and exposes them to predators and other dangers.
Protect wildlife and your food by storing rations and trash securely.
Control pets at all times, or leave them at home.
Avoid wildlife during sensitive times: mating, nesting, raising young, or winter.
Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Respect other visitors and protect the quality of their experience.
Be courteous. Yield to other users on the trail or portage.
Step to the downhill side of the trail when encountering pack stock.
Take breaks and camp away from trails and other visitors.
Let nature’s sounds prevail. Avoid loud voices and noises. Anyone who takes a radio into the woods, headphones or not, should be punished. Use your imagination.